AN INTROCDIICTION TO
THE WESTERN DESERT lANGUAGE.
(Especially for the student of language)
1. Orientation Note.
2. Dialectical Variations and Their Indigenous Labellings,
3. Pedagogical Nature of the Written Grammar.
4. Implications of Language Knowledge.
5 . Acknowl edgment s .
1. The Western Desert language is an Australian Abor-
iginal language spoken by an unknown nixmber of people (possibly
by a nimber in the low thousands) living in the, so-called,
"desert areas" of South and Western Australia, including the
Great Victoria Desert and tie Gibson Desert, and in the central
west of the Northern Territory,
This is an "agglutinative" type of language in which
lateral morphemes, such as tense and aspect affixes, subject
indicators, bound pronominal subjects and objects, various mod-
ifiers and inflectional formations, negatives and pluralizers,
occur as SUFFIXES to the central, or stem, morphemes.
The suffixing of the lateral morphemes makes a present-
day distinction between the Western Desert language and the
majority of Kimberley and Amhem Land languages, which are not-
ably "prefixing" in nature. (See " A New Approach to Australian
Linguistics" by Dr. A. Capell, especially noting "Summaxy of
This descriptive statement and pedagogical "grammar"
of the Western Desert language is based on material gathered
personally at the Warburton Ranges Mission, at Ooldea in South
Australia, at Mount Margaret in Western Australia, and from
various inform^ants from places as widely separated as Jiggalong
and Rawlinson Ranges (W.A.), Emabella (S.A.), and Kalgoorlie
(W.A.), during the period between early 1951 until the present
time (1957) • The Gramaar is essentially an introduction to the
Western Desert language THROUGH one of the dialects of that
language spoken at Warbxaxton Ranges, Western Australia.
2. There are a number of dialectical variations of
the Western Desert language throughout the vast area in which
it is spoken. These may be regarded as different manifestations
of the same language, just as a number of allophones may be
variant forms, in different environments, of the same phoneme.
There appears to be mutual intelligibility between
language groups, step-by-step, all the way from Ooldea and Koon-
ibba in South Australia to Pitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley
region of Western Australia, and from Oodnadatta in S.A. across
to MeekatJiarra in W.A. Certain points within tliis area have
become centres of " dialectical groups, ctiiefly because of the
establishment of mission stations, notably at Emabella and Yal-
ata (S.A.)» Cundeelee, Mt. Margaret, Cosmo Newbery, Warburton
Ranges, Jiggalong and Fitzroy Crossing (in W.A.)> and at Yuendu-
mu in the Northern Territory. Some groups still keep within the
precincts of sacred ceremonial grounds, notably the "Pintupi"
(north of the Rav/linson Ranges), a few of the "Kayili" group
(from the sand-hill country north of the Warburton Ranges), and
a remnant of the "Yuliya" group (around the Rawlinson Ranges).
There is some evidence that a small number of the '*Yapu Kiti
mob" still roam the area of this range, two or three hundred
miles north of Loongana, W.A. Some other groups have now con-
centrated around the towns, such as Kalgoorlie, Leonora and
Within the area from which the material for this
grammar has been gathered, it has been found that the people do
not have a specific name for their language. The general word
for * speech' or 'language' is wangka , and for the people the
word wangkatpa >
"Nicknames", however, are given to the various dia-
lects according to their particular idiosyncrasies. For example
the people of Warburton Ranges "nickname" a dialect found around
Ernabella "wangka yankunt jat jara", 'The language having the word
y ankunt j a (meaning 'came').' The Emabella folk, on the other
nand, label the Warburton Ranges dialect wangka pit jantjat jara ,
because they use pitjjantna instead of yanliuntj a at the Kanges.
On the oasis of the pit jantj a / yanSuntja distinction,
the whole Western Desert could be divicTcd into two major dialect
groups. The pit j ant j at jar a speakers are found in the south and
west (from Ooldea, or Yalata, through Kalgoorlie and Mt. Margaret
to east of the Warburton Ranges). The yankun t j at j ar a , or
ankunt j at j ar a , speakers are found in the east and north (roughlv
from Ernabella in S.A. to Jigalong and Fitzroy Crossing in W.A.)»
While there may be certain geographical and religious
features tending to bind the |)it jant jat jara folk into a group
separate from the yankunt jat jar a, yet linguistically there ar<
so many other overlapping features that a major division on the
basis of this vocabulary difference would appear to be unreason-
Consideration of a few of the other variants will re-
veal something of the complexity of the dialectical overlappings
The word for 'man' (i.e. 'an initiated man') redivides
the Western Desert area and gives rise to a new set of "nick-
names". Ooldea, Ernabella, Warburton Ranges areas use wati ,
Mt.Margaret - Kalgoorlie area uses puntu ,
East rf Jigalong the word used is matu.
To the people of the Kalgoorlie area, the Jigalong
people are the wangka matutjara ^Thxrs^ hay±iig the word matu
t 'man')- S and piniritjara because they use the word pinirx
('run')> a word which is not used in the south.
There are different foims of the word meaning 'to get*,
so speech variant groups are called, for example, wangka mantji-
'to get' -J
Note also the variant forms of the word 'this' and the
"overlapping" which makes dialectical boundaries indistinct.
Ooldea to Ernabella ' this ' = nyangat ja >
Cundeelee to Mt.Margaret 'this' = nyanganya *
Warburton Rg. to Jigalong 'this ' = nga;nya>
East of W.R. to Rawlinson Rg..,.'this' - nga; t ja .
The custom of making "taboo" the names of the dead
gives rise to a number of variant forms. For example, throiigh-
out the lower Desert area the stem of the 'first person singular
pronoun' is n^ayu- ['gayu-J. At Warburton Ranges, however, owing
to the death ol a person named Fgayun ya, a new stem has come into
everyday use. This is nganku -^ ['^^^^^Scu- J, a form borrowed from
the, so-called, "mother-in-law speech" (a special form of speech
used in taboo situations, such as when the mother-in-law is be-
ing addressed or during initiation ceremonies).
Dialectical variations within the Western Desert area
cover all layers of language composition.
Pronunciation differences may be illustrated by the
change in tongue position for the production of the Dental con-
sonants. In the West, i.e. around Mt. Margaret especially, the
dentals (symbolized by the digraphs /tj/, /ny/^ and /ly/j are
Interdental before all vowels. In the East, i.e. around Erna-
bella, they are, what may be termed. "alveolarized dentals" pre-
ceding all vowels. At Ooldea and Warburton Ranges, on the
mid-way line, the same phonemes are interdental before the
vowels /a/ and /u/, but are "alveolarized dentals" when preced-
ing the vowel /i/.
A pronunciation difference which affects syllable
structure is the Eastern dialect possibility of beginning words
with a vowel, contrasting with the Western demand for initial
consonant for all words. For example:
East, a^Uj 7/est yapu 'rock',
uwa, yuwa 'yes ' ,
ala, yala 'hole',
ink a , yinka 'sing'.
Vocabulary differences have been referred to already.
Of all the differences between dialects vocabulary changes are,
by the statistical score, in tiie lead. It may be pointed out
that most groups are acquainted with the vocabulary differences
of other groups. When meeting together, however, it is regarded
as being more polite for each man to speak his own dialect*
Although syntactical differences are rare, there are
a few significant grammatical variations from dialect to dialect.
The most notable of these in the lower part of the Western Desert
area are the differing forms of the "Subject Indicator" (or
"Agentive", as it has been, named elsewhere) and the use or non-
U3e of the "pronominal suffixes". There are also variant forms
of certain of the lateral morphemes.
This Grammar is an attempt to introduce the student to
any of the dialects- of the V/estern Desert language through one
of its many manifestations, namely wangka nga;nyat jara 'The
speech having the word ngatnya for 'tiix8'.*7 a dialect spoken
in the Warburton Ranges area.
As the Gremmar is intended to be of use to the begin-
ner, it would be confusing to attempt the inclusion of the many
variant forms of the language. It woui.d appear to be more pro-
fitable, at this stage, to present separate descriptions of each
of the dialects, and leave the preparation of a Composite Gram-
mar and the reconstruction of the, "basic" or "original" form of
the language to the Comparative Linguist.
OCEANIA UNGUISTIC MONOGRAPHS
Editors: A. Capell and S. Wurm
OCEANIA LINGUISTIC MONOGRAPHS
AN INTRODUCTION TO
THE WESTERN DESERT LANGUAGE
W. H. DOUGLAS
AN INTRODUCTION TO
THE WESTERN DESERT LANGUAGE.
A Pedagogical Description of
The Western Desert Language,
based on the dialect spoken at
WARBURTON RANGES, WESTERN AUSTRALIA.
W. H. DOUGLAS.
Published by the University of Sydney, Australia.
PRICE: Twelve Shillings i& Sixpence
University of Sydney, Australia.